Israeli Organization That Connected Heirs With Assets to Be Shut Down
About three years ago, Leo Wolinsky got a call from a private investigator in Santa Monica who asked if he knew Abraham Wolinsky.
Yes, he replied, Abraham Wolinsky was his father.
“Next thing I know, I’m in touch with Hashava, which I had never heard of,” Wolisnky said in an interview.
Established in 2007 by passage of the Israeli Holocaust Victims Assets Law the previous year, Hashava’s mandate was to gather assets that belonged to European Jews who never made it to Israel’s shores — namely, their bonds, bank deposits and real estate — and distribute them to their rightful heirs. Among the 60,000 assets they collected was a piece of real estate bought by Wolinsky’s great uncle.
But Wolinsky will be among the last to receive a mysterious call from Israel about a surprise inheritance. On Dec. 31, Hashava will shut its doors.
Like many other heirs, Wolinsky was suspicious at first — as were his friends. They warned him, “Watch out, it’s a scam,” he said.
The genealogist who connected the dots to Wolinsky for Hashava, Ayana Kimron, eventually told him that his uncle, a Polish textile manufacturer who perished in the Holocaust, had purchased a property in the Israeli city of Bat Yam in the 1930s, which Wolinsky and his family members now stood to inherit.
Kimron, for her part, said she enjoyed making such calls. “Wonderful job,” she said in an interview. “I wish it continued.”
While heirs still will be able to claim assets after Hashava shuts down at the end of this year, Hashava’s team will no longer actively search them out, said Elinor Kroitoru, Hashava’s head of research. Moreover, claimants will have to produce their own documents proving their inheritance, and there is no statute of limitations, she said.
“The special thing about Hashava is that we did a lot of research for the heirs,” she said. “They didn’t have to come with any documents.”
From the time it was established, Hashava has collected about $600 million worth of assets. It has approved 2,811 applications for restitution, totaling about $205 million in disbursements. Another $285 million worth were liquidated after Hashava determined heirs could not be found, with proceeds given to needy Holocaust survivors or spent on Holocaust commemoration and education.
In September, Hashava announced it had met its targets set out by law and would shut down.
Now, Kroitoru said, “Heirs will have to do a bit more themselves,” and claims will be handled by a small staff working within the Israeli Ministry of Justice, which will hold the remaining assets. “It’s just not worth holding a whole company for the assets that are left. And so it was decided that Hashava would close.”
But for Kimron, the genealogist who was terminated in June, Hashava’s shutdown leaves a chapter of history unresolved. As long as assets remain unclaimed, she said, “for me, personally, the Second World War did not end.”
Kimron said she treasured her job tracking down the heirs of Holocaust victims, especially when she was able to inform non-Jews of their Jewish heritage, and of forging close relationships with heirs, she said.
“Sometimes, I would call a person, like Leo, and talk to them as if I was their cousin — and I knew more about their family than they did,” she said.
This summer, Kimron plans to visit Wolinsky in Los Angeles.
Often, she said, people were suspicious of her. For instance, Wolinsky’s distant cousin in Israel, with whom he and his two sisters will split their inheritance, took some time to convince.
“And not just her — there’s a woman that I chased for a whole year, to convince her to file the request,” she said.
For Wolinsky, Kimron’s call introduced him to a dark chapter in his family’s history that he had never bothered to ask his European-born parents about when he was young and the subject was still fresh in their minds.
“People are not used to having Israelis look for people to pay them.” — Elinor Kroitoru
“As a kid, I didn’t care that much, to be perfectly honest,” Wolinsky said. “Growing up in L.A. in the 1950s, it’s the last thing you care about — these men with long beards in sepia-tone photographs.”
Nonetheless, he said, he was impressed by Kimron’s skill. Through some Yiddish writing on the back of a passport-sized photo, she was able to track down his cousin in Herzliya, whom he never knew existed.
Kimron also learned that Wolinsky’s great uncle, Joseph Volisnky of Lodz, Poland, had acquired a piece of real estate in Bat Yam before perishing in Europe, most likely in Treblinka. The new information excited Wolinsky’s curiosity enough that he eventually traveled to Poland, visiting his father’s hometown of Grodek, near the Belarussian border.
The lot in Bat Yam, he learned, had remained undeveloped as sand dunes all around it were gradually replaced by high-rise buildings. Now, Wolinsky said, it is worth well over $1 million — that is, if he manages to change the title and pay 80 years’ worth of back-taxes.
“I love Israel, but what a bureaucratic country — unbelievable,” he said.
As of Jan. 1, 2018, despite Hashava’s decade-long effort to get the word out, unclaimed assets will likely be locked behind even greater bureaucratic obstacles. Moreover, calls from the forgotten past like the one Wolinsky received will cease.
“It wasn’t easy to get our message out over the years, but we did try our best,” Kroitoru said. “People are not used to having Israelis look for people to pay them. If an Israeli calls them, it’s usually for a donation, not to give money.”